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People not Coal

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Over the river on the rails.

This summer you have a unique opportunity to take what may be the ride of your life. For the first time in decades, Amtrak has adjusted the schedule of the eastbound Empire Builder, one of only two passenger trains that comes through our town each day. Now through the first week of September, instead of riding over the Cascades in the dead of night, you can see it all in the shine of daylight. If you take the Empire Builder south to Portland (the train splits in Spokane), you will be rewarded with fabulous dramatic vistas of the Columbia Gorge.

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The Columbia rolls under a railroad bridge near Wenatchee.

The seventy or so trains that rumble through our town every day mostly carry freight, and there has been a great deal of concern expressed about the possibility of half again that many coming through carrying coal. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Riverkeeper at the Center for Justice have taken the lead in shedding light on the many ways these trains will impact our environment. As a consequence of massive public outcry,  several proposed coal-export terminal projects on the West side have been side-lined.

Two coal-terminal projects are still possible, and there continues to be a steady stream of  objections based on their possible impacts – locally and globally. But there is a continuing, significant impact on train traffic through Spokane that has gotten a lot less attention – huge delays experienced by passenger trains as a result of oil and gas development in the Midwest.

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Empire Builder passenger train waits out freight train traffic on a side line near Gold Bar, Washington on June 16th.

People riding on trains west of Chicago have been grossly inconvenienced for months by delays – sometimes up to 8 hours by the time the Empire Builder squeezes through the last bottleneck and arrives in Spokane. Seasoned long-haul passenger train riders have grown to expect some delays, but the situation had gotten so bad this spring,  Amtrak finally decided to try adjusting its passenger train schedule to correct the situation.

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Narrow passage for the rail line on the Empire Builder.

Spokane’s rail-riding contingent has been pretty quiet, but that’s probably because it’s a pretty small group. Historically our city has been relegated to a dark nether region when it comes to the Amtrak schedule, and this could account for why the voice of Spokane’s passenger community has been largely missing. Passenger trains have come through Spokane to pick up and drop off passengers sometime in the middle of the night. Most people who live in Spokane never even see a passenger train go through town because they are home asleep. Even fewer actually take the train because getting to the downtown station at 3 AM is awfully inconvenient, and arrival and departure times have been notoriously unreliable.

If the burgeoning freight traffic and its dreary delays have a silver lining, it’s the change in Amtrak’s schedule. Now you can leave Seattle’s beautiful and historic King Street Station at about 1 PM 7 days a week, and expect to arrive in Spokane at about 10 pm, a decent hour. Every bit as compelling is the stunning beauty of the countryside you will see as you snake up along the Puget Sound to Everett, and then chug across the Cascades in broad daylight. Better yet, it is unlikely the train leaving Seattle will be late because that’s where it originates. Same is true of the train from Portland.

River, rails and mountains on the eastbound Amtrak over the Cascades, June 2014

River, rails and mountains on the eastbound Amtrak over the Cascades, June 2014

The westbound Empire Builder is still on the old schedule. The bad news is that means the Seattle train is scheduled to depart Spokane at 3:45 am, and Spokane to Portland at 4:15am. Ironically, the schedule adjustment hasn’t actually worked. So, the good news is, there are still significant delays on the westbound route, so the train might actually depart several hours later!

The bad news is, there are still significant delays on the westbound routes, so Amtrak is currently planning on returning to the old eastbound schedule in early September.

So, plan your train travel now for what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Hopefully, this new schedule will entice more Spokane folks to try train travel and become advocates for green and glorious passenger train travel. Trains for people, not coal.

Friendly Amtrak staffer attended Ferris High School back in the day

Friendly Amtrak staffer attended Ferris High School back in the day

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